Reporters Look to Expand Horizons with Backpack Journalism

April 26th, 2010

(NOTE: This is a guest post by  Leah Betancourt.)

Journalists are increasingly looking to expand their skill set or even reinvent themselves during this challenging time for the news industry. Some are doing it on their own terms.

Former newspaper reporters Alexis Grant and Adam Jadhav have a lot in common. They both quit their full-time reporting jobs they loved to travel abroad while blogging and shooting photos and video along the way.

Blog Fixture of New Venture

Grant set a goal for herself that after she had been working at the Houston Chronicle for three years and if she had enough money saved, she would take a long-term trip. When she was 27, she left her job as a health reporter in 2008 and spent six months traveling to several French-speaking African countries.

Alexis documented her travels through a blog

Grant freelanced for newspapers and magazines, but stressed that it supplemented the trip costs, but didn’t pay for them completely. She also tried blogging for the first time and put most of her effort into that. She also blogged so her family would know where she was.

Grant said that in her reporting job, she didn’t want to add another thing to her job, such as blogging. During her trip she learned she loved blogging. “I discovered a love for blogging that I didn’t know I had,” she said.

Slow and unpredictable Internet connections made things difficult. She said her biggest mistake was not setting up her blog ahead of time so she would have as little work as possible to do when blogging on the road. When Grant did find a fast Internet connection, she’d upload photos to Flickr. That’s how editors she freelanced for were able to access them.

Some of her freelance stories from her trip include, In modern Cameroon polygamy doesn’t pay and Baylor’s West African AIDS project perseveres.

When Grant got back, she decided to write a book full-time about the trip. Having just turned 28, she moved in with her parents in suburban Albany, NY. The travel memoir is loosely based on the blog. “There’s an element of personal journey to it,” she said.

She attributes writing the book to helping her improve her writing and becoming a better journalist. “I think that’s going to help me in my next job,” she said. “This is a chance for me to see how I could write in a different way.”

Grant launched another blog and a YouTube channel and posted her travel videos. She also joined Twitter. “Through my blog and Twitter, I was able to find others who are writing travel memoirs,” she said. Then she started a Ning group for writers of travel memoirs.

Today, Grant is job searching while living in Washington DC.

Search for Meaningful Journalism

At 27, Adam Jadhav went to Kenya nearly eight months ago. Since then he has been to Madagascar and India. He’s now in southeast Asia.

Jadhav left his job as reporter at the St. Louis-Dispatch covering poverty issues in July 2009 to go abroad as an international reporter. He admitted that a one-week reporting trip to Cuba in March made his desire to do international reporting stronger. In 2007, he was the newspaper’s multimedia reporter. In the summer of 2008, he launched the Post-Dispatch’s political channel on YouTube.

“I figured I could afford to spend a year or two out on the road tilting at windmills and (I hope) producing some meaningful journalism along the way. And I’m incredibly lucky: I had the savings, the lack of commitments, a supportive mother, professors and editors, the multimedia training and a healthy dose of moxie to do it,” he wrote in an e-mail.

At the same time, he launched a blog, where he posts videos, audio slideshows and photos. He said the blog is a personal outlet to share his trip with his family and friends, but he also posts updates about the work he’s covering during his travels. He also uses Facebook and Twitter to share information.

Jadhav also struggles with slow Internet connection speeds. He said that in Africa it can take up to two hours to upload a video, which also requires a constant connection to achieve. He uses YouTube as his video content management system because it’s ubiquitous and it offers the best chance for his video clips to get picked up elsewhere.

“YouTube is the starting point for my videos; they automatically spread to Twitter and Facebook. I absolutely think cross posting is a good idea and when I have something more worthwhile, I fully intend to post elsewhere,” he said.

He tries to focus on stories that will connect with U.S. audiences. For example an HIV clinic in Kenya has a direct connection to the University of Illinois in Chicago.

A few of his stories he has covered abroad include: Harley gunning for growing market in India, Kenyan males line up for circumcision and the Maasai Show. He has a few more awaiting publication and several finished pieces without a buyer.

Jadhav said he has spent far more time sending e-mails and looking up contacts as part of his business then doing actual journalism.

“The big, meaty stories are too expensive to really pursue without prior funding commitments. News feature and travel journalism is simply easier to sell,” he said.

He spent his first three months in India waiting for his residency and his work permit to get processed and approved, which was important because he eventually wants to work in India long-term.

Jadhav admits, however, his lifestyle isn’t for everyone. “I’m comfortable being marginally employed,” he said. “I’m not in a rush. I have savings to fall back on, and that I’m doing plenty of personal travel, adventure and language study.”

Jadhav doesn’t know when he plans on returning to the U.S. He’s moving to Ecuador in July for volunteer work and to pursue other stories. He tentatively plans to be in the U.S. in the fall to apply to an international development graduate school before returning to India early next year.

It isn’t just wanderlusts who want to do freelance journalism abroad. There are training programs for learning these skills and applying them professionally.

Teaching Visual Language

Bill Gentile, an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker, spearheaded the American University School of Communication’s Backpack Journalist Program, which launched April 1.

He said there’s a lot of spray and pray out there. In other words, shooting video and hope you’ve got something good. “That’s not what we’re talking about,” he said.

The project aims train people to speak a visual language. “The visual language really is a separate language. Too few people can really speak this language properly,” he said.

Program courses include photojournalism and social documentary, foreign correspondence and backpack documentary, according to its site. Workshops include “Storytelling: Backpack Journalism Style.” Gentile said they are working on certificate program.

The Backpack journalism methodology doesn’t work for every story, he said, but when it does, it’s much more intimate. Although Gentile fears that the methodology might be used as a cost-saving measure by news organizations.

He pointed out that no one is providing the platform, engaging the industry and practicing the craft of backpack journalism at the same time.

“We want to teach the real power of backpack journalism,” he said.

Freelance journalist travel tips:

From Alexis Grant:

  • Be flexible. It’s almost better not to have a plan.
  • Have your blog and social media tools set up and ready to use.
  • Make sure you have freelance contacts in place.
  • More tips from Grant

From Adam Jadhav:

  • Be ready for a tough, but really fun road.
  • Have as large of a toolkit as you can.
  • Be able to work across mediums.
  • Consider having something else to do with your time. There will be downtime while waiting to hear back from an editor or a source.

________________________________________

Leah Betancourt is a journalist who has written about social media, emerging media and community engagement for Mashable, Poynter and elsewhere. This is her first post for Old Media, New Tricks, and we’re glad to have her!

If you’d like to contribute to Old Media, New Tricks, you can reach us through  @mediatricks on Twitter.

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Entry Filed under: blogging,case study,future of media,Guest Post

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  • http://www.billgentile.com Bill Gentile

    I might only point out in reference to the post about our Backpack Journalism Project at American University, that we define backpack journalism as the craft of one properly trained practitioner using a hand-held digital camera to perform the skills of camera person, sound person, producer, correspondent, writer, narrator and editor to deliver a more intimate, more immediate brand of visual communication than is achievable with a large, shoulder-held camera and a traditional, multi-person crew. This methodology often is referred to as video journalism or one-man-band journalism.

  • Pingback: Reporters Look to Expand Horizons with Backpack Journalism | Invisible Inkling


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